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Thankfully, ICT4D is Now About Strategy and Implementations, Not Technovelty

By Guest Writer on August 15, 2012

Just like any other industry, the ICT for Development (ICT4D) field has experienced significant shifts. As major international development stakeholders have begun focusing on funding ICT projects, these shifts have widespread implications for how programs develop in the field.

I am Eric Smallberg and I find the tone of the conversation surrounding ICT4D to be changing, as more emphasis is being placed on the strategy and implementations of projects instead of the infinite potential of technology. We have been a part of this conversation, rethinking the question sustainability, ICT as a means and not a goal, and escaping the tunnel vision of technology.


Richard Heeks wrote about the early history of these changes in a paper entitled The ICT4D 2.0 Manifesto. Mr. Heeks explained the difference in earlier attitude between the first programs, and the projects in the field today. Early programs relied upon “technovelty” and focused more on spreading access as quickly as possible instead of on thoughtful implementation. He generalizes the outcome of those early projects into a few words: “failure…and anecdote[s].” Often programs would return with great stories about how technology had changed one individual’s life, without analysis to the larger effects. Past the promotional materials, positive impact became difficult to assess, which in turn led to many projects today being framed by sustainability, scalability, and evaluation.

In that same spirit, IFES sponsored an event that featured discussion on “Digital Development,” taking examples of social media use from Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as Kenya. As speakers talked about their projects, and the effect they had, they all listed off their lessons learned, including:

  1. “Building trust and credibility is crucial”
  2. “Research tech context before strategizing”
  3. “Technology should serve the goal, not be the goal”
  4. “Try to find out if there is an alternative to technology”
  5. “Use the technology that is already in place to limit training needs”

No one brought up discussion about what type of coding worked best, or the software program they used, nor did anyone boast about the transformative effect of technology. Fail Faire, an event that discusses the failures that occur in the ICT4D realm, recently held a conference in London. Inveneo posted the 9 lessons given by the speakers there. Yet again, the lessons did not talk about the potential of technology, or even best practices in that regard. It spoke to the importance of ensuring that all steps of the process and planning involve beneficiaries. Otherwise, the programs will have limited success due to lack of sustainability.

With the amount of knowledge coming back from field pilot programs, hopefully these lessons are taking hold and creating opportunity for the next round of discussions. There are still many questions when it comes to ICT4D projects, such as how to scale to larger populations or to different environments, how to best use funds to encourage local entrepreneurship, or how to coordinate efforts to create efficiencies. However these discussions develop, the very existence of these introspective discussions indicate a desire for the entire field to progress and to not get caught up in the technovelty of it all.

Eric Smallberg is a Project Assistant with the Information Communication & Technology (ICT) team at NDI and originally published this post as Lessons Learned: A Shift in ICT Programs.


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One Comment to “Thankfully, ICT4D is Now About Strategy and Implementations, Not Technovelty”

  1. Pamela says:

    One of my “missions in life” is to make it easier for top down organisations to connect with grass-roots organisations and individuals. I have been working on this for years in various ways. For example – John Dada and I set up Dadamac because we thought people needed to know various things (things that are totally obvious from a grass roots perspective) such as the excellent list you gave which seems sadly unknown to many people:

    “Building trust and credibility is crucial”
    “Research tech context before strategizing”
    “Technology should serve the goal, not be the goal”
    “Try to find out if there is an alternative to technology”
    “Use the technology that is already in place to limit training needs”

    See “Dadamac – the Internet-enabled alternative to top-down development” http://dadamac.posterous.com/dadamac-the-internet-enabled-alternative-to-t

    It breaks my heart to see money thrown away on top-down projects and the same mistakes made over and over again. (At least it used to break my heart – I’ve stopped looking now because I can’t bear to see it going on and on, year after year, project after project.)

    I’m in the UK. I am in easy contact with grassroots projects run by people who I know in Nigeria because I have done many working-holidays there. We’ve done things together. We communicate with each other. Obviously there are challenges to be overcome – it isn’t as easy as picking up a phone or going online in the UK – but we have been motivated to communicate and so we overcome the challenges.

    My simple wish is that top-down projects showed more evidence of being similarly motivated to communicate with their stakeholders (present and potential). I don’t understand how it is that big, heavily-funded projects seem lacking in reality checks and two way communication when contact is now comparatively easy (I have been in contact with rural Nigeria since 2000 – it is so much easier now that it was then). It is doubly ironic when projects are ICT projects and are not using ICT to work more effectively.

    My level of success so far in connecting with top-down projects on behalf of grass roots is so abysmal that when I told of my efforts at the FailFaire I was the easy winner of the greatest failure award.

    Is the lack of communication with stakeholders because of top-down habits inherited from organisational structures established in the industrial age, or is it entrenched arrogance, or is it some kind of purposeful colonialism, or what?

    Today a Nigerian friend Skyped me from the South to update me on his Agricbizz and ICT project. (We got so deeply involved in discussing chicken rearing and intensive v organic approaches that we didn’t get around to the ICT).

    Today was also the day for the weekly UK-Nigeria Dadamac meeting – linking with Fantsuam Foundation. We’ve been sharing information on a weekly basis for years and making it available online.

    Over the weekend I was sent new photos, along with a long text message, from SW Nigeria. it was all from a Nigerian teacher updating me on his work as an Internet evangelist with local community and schools in Ago-Are – it’s a tiny unfunded project that is locally driven.

    On Friday another Nigerian contact – ex Fantsuam Foundation – caught me on Skype. He wanted to tell me about a water and sanitation project he is initiating in his local community. On Sunday he gave me another brief update after a community meeting.

    Is it possible that ICT4D really is “Now About Strategy and Implementations, Not Technovelty.” Could it be that the mistaken “Take the technology and they will come” people have finally learned their lesson? Can I hope that the tide is turning and top-down projects are starting to ask questions about reality on the ground and will communicate freely with grass roots at last?

    I hope you are right and there will be evidence at the grass roots of real change.